Helena O’Dwyer, head of Strategy at EY Parthenon reflects on her life and business lessons.
As Partner and Head of Strategy at EY-Parthenon Ireland, O’Dwyer is at the forefront of one of the largest global strategy consulting organisations on the island. She builds world class strategies for her clients by combining her extensive knowledge and reach across sectors, her experience in the local market and she brings together that local expertise with an unrivalled global network of strategy professionals.
Prior to joining EY Ireland, she spent over 20 years in various senior roles in professional services in Ireland, focused on supporting clients on their large scale strategic, growth and transformation needs.
“Strategy is at the heart of every organisation, and I get to be at the coalface of that”
O’Dwyer is from the midlands originally, is the youngest of seven children and a mum to three pre-teens. She is a proud advocate and mentor of Diversity, Equality and Inclusion. She is passionate about attracting more females into the business and is sponsoring and leading EY’s STEM app initiative across all secondary schools in Ireland. She is also a massive sports fan.
Tell us about your background, what journey did you take to arrive at where you are?
I loved all things science-related in my teens, so off I went to UCC to do a primary degree in Biochemistry. I discovered that loving science wasn’t enough. The isolation of the laboratory didn’t suit me. I needed to be engaging with other people to be happy.
“I was into competitive sport and was in receipt of a sports scholarship which gave me a deep sense of the importance of preparation, commitment, training – and balancing all that with academia”
The independence of college life, the diversity of the people and the range of opinions shaped my understanding of others, the potential of people and my own ambitions. I was into competitive sport and was in receipt of a sports scholarship which gave me a deep sense of the importance of preparation, commitment, training – and balancing all that with academia. The milk round came to UCC in 2000 and the world of Consulting really captured my imagination. I started in Consulting in 2001 and it became my working home for the next 22 years, up to today.
Why are you doing what you are doing? What need are you meeting? What’s your USP?
I feel privileged to lead EY’s Strategy practice in Ireland. I have the opportunity to work with CEOs and boards in organisations of all shapes and sizes. Strategy is at the heart of every organisation, and I get to be at the coalface of that.
There has never been a greater need for strategy services in the Irish market. The combined factors of inflation, continuing rise in interest rates, the energy crisis, trade and supply chain disruptions and the impact of climate change, all mean that business leaders need to look at their strategy and re-assess key aspects from a market, competitor, product and customer lens.
What was the focus a few years ago must now be re-defined in order to support sustainable growth into the future. Goalposts have significantly shifted and my role is to support our clients with the difficult decisions that need to be made.
What are your key skills and qualities that set you apart?
I multi-task very effectively. As a mum of three with a busy job, that’s a must-have skill!
I believe I have a high level of emotional intelligence, I know my strengths and weaknesses and am also aware of those around me and how they react in certain situations.
“I’m not an EY Partner at home, I’m just me. My family gives me with the balance and perspective I need to stay healthy, happy and fulfilled”
It’s especially important in highly sensitive environments with clients, where you must read the room and ensure you are bringing a group of senior individuals with you, often on highly emotional topics. That can be one of the most challenging aspects of my job – but also the part I love the most.
What (or whom) has helped you most along the way? Who was your greatest mentor/inspiration?
It may sound corny, but my husband and children are my greatest inspiration. The support and dedication provided by my husband allows me to do what I do, and my kids are a constant source of entertainment and support. I’m not an EY Partner at home, I’m just me. My family gives me with the balance and perspective I need to stay healthy, happy and fulfilled.
What was the greatest piece of business advice you ever received?
Be yourself – it’s the only way to truly succeed. It’s too exhausting trying to be anything else.
What circumstances/qualities/events can mark the difference between success or failure in life or business?
The definition of success is very personal. Success for me is doing what I love in work and my family being safe, healthy and happy. Maintaining clear priorities is paramount. I have my personal non-negotiables. Without those, the balance would be thrown out of kilter.
“Building a business is challenging by its nature. I’ve launched the EY Parthenon Strategy brand in Ireland and built up the practice in the last 12 months”
What is the most challenging aspect of your role and why?
The most challenging aspect of the role is balancing the day-to-day requirements of working in partnership with such a diverse range of clients and sectors. The network I’ve created throughout my career is wide and deep, meaning no two days are the same, and time is a precious commodity.
This is also the most rewarding part of what I do because the flip-side is the opportunity this creates for EY Parthenon Strategy.
The deep sector experience and strength of the entire EY Parthenon team in Ireland, in combination with EY’s wider 8,000 strategy professionals worldwide, means we can stand up a highly experienced, bespoke team in a matter of days to support our clients.
Building a business is challenging by its nature. I’ve launched the EY Parthenon Strategy brand in Ireland and built up the practice in the last 12 months. We’ve been really successful in a short space of time and intend to continue to grow and deliver great strategy services to clients in coming years.
“I work closely with our EY Entrepreneur of the Year programme. This group of entrepreneurs are so inspirational. It takes a special type of person to create and run their own successful business”
How did EY, and your role, navigate through the pandemic?
I joined EY a few months before the pandemic and my role was to set up and run EY’s new state of the art innovation centre, EY Wavespace. We launched in February 2020 and in March the entire EY office closed due to the pandemic.
So, we flipped the innovation centre and in a matter of weeks, we became the Centre of Excellence for virtual working and innovation. It was a tough time and we took a leap of faith into the unknown, but it paid off and made me realise that anything can be achieved with hard work, dedication and a strong sense of purpose.
If you were to do it all over again, what would you do differently?
I’d become a professional golfer and hang out with Rory, Shane, Leona and the gang. A major talent gap might have held me back but no harm in dreaming big!
“I tell my team that a career is long and non-linear and that there’s no rush – it’s a marathon not a sprint”
Who inspires you in business today?
I work closely with our EY Entrepreneur of the Year programme. This group of entrepreneurs are so inspirational. It takes a special type of person to create and run their own successful business. It never ceases to amaze me how many wonderful entrepreneurs we have in Ireland and how successful so many have been on a global scale. It’s a real privilege to work with them and support their strategic agendas.
What advice/guidance do you give new hires and how do you nurture talent in your organisation?
I tell my team that a career is long and non-linear and that there’s no rush – it’s a marathon not a sprint.
I try to be kind – compassion and empathy are not always directly rewarded in business and I believe it’s vital to create a positive and supportive culture.
It’s also very important to provide challenging opportunities, particularly when you’re working with high performers, such as those who join EY Parthenon Strategy. Our people are hired because of their high-performance track record and their future potential. It’s critical that we feed them the right opportunities, so they can continue to grow and develop.
What business books do you read or would recommend?
I don’t read many business books. I learn on the job from my team and my peers. Building strong trusted relationships and demonstrating lived experiences is what’s important to me. There is nothing more powerful than learning from your own mistakes and learning from those around you.
I am a passionate reader of novels though, reading is a huge part of my life. I couldn’t live without my Kindle, it’s one of my most treasured possessions.
What technologies/tools do you use personally to keep you on track?
I am a furious note-taker. I have stacks of notebooks full of scribbles and thoughts – so pen and paper are my tools of choice. I sketch out my approaches and questions before speaking with clients. It’s my way of formulating my ideas and making sense of complex challenges.
My Outlook calendar dictates my work and personal life. With a busy work schedule and 3 active children, if it’s not in the calendar, it doesn’t happen!
“ Technology is truly transforming how we live and work. I have yet to speak to a client that isn’t either thinking about or undertaking a technology transformation”
What social media platforms do you prefer and why?
I’m active on LinkedIn as we continue to build the EY Parthenon brand. I also follow my colleagues, clients and friends and keep up to date with movements across the network. LinkedIn is a great tool for sourcing talent and also a way to share what I’m seeing in the market, including trends across sectors and key watch outs for CEOs.
Instagram is great for fashion inspiration – I don’t get to the shops often so it’s my shortcut to browsing the stores.
What are your thoughts on where technology overall is heading and how it will apply to business generally and your business particularly?
I’ve been involved directly and indirectly in technology throughout my career. Earlier in my career I worked on large, complex systems implementation programmes which taught and just recently we’ve launched an AI Lab in EY Ireland. Through my role in EY Wavespace, I was involved in emerging technology discussions with clients – from its role in Finance, to HR, manufacturing and supply chain.
Technology is truly transforming how we live and work. I have yet to speak to a client that isn’t either thinking about or undertaking a technology transformation. I would also say to my clients that if technology, digital and cyber security isn’t high on their Board agenda, then they need to re-prioritise quickly.
Finally, if you had advice for your 21-year-old self – knowing what you know now – what would it be?
I would love to talk to 21-year-old me. So many things could be said. For instance:
- You are good/smart enough to be in the room. Don’t listen to the inner voice telling you you’re not.
- Don’t take feedback personally. Its purpose is to help you grow.
- And probably most importantly, find the really good leaders around you and stick with them. Learn all you can from them and pass this onto the next generation.